Why companies in Asia should think more about culture / by Chris W. Hubbard

I’ve been working professionally in Asia for many years now and observed something similar in almost every workplace I’ve been a part of. 

Young people wish things at work were different. They wish their workplaces were more fun, creative, and collaborative. They don't want to be just another overworked, under-appreciated employee. They want to be a part of the company. They want their work, and the ideas to be valued. They want company culture change—but few seem willing to do anything about it. 

At the same time, many brand owners wish things were different too. They want to be more international. They want the world to take them seriously—as innovators, designers and world-class brands. They’re looking for perception change–and many are willing to do something about it, they just aren’t sure what it should be. 

Here’s the bottom line:

If employees aren’t able to realize their dream of more creative, collaborative workplaces, where the work they do and opinions they have are valued, then the brands they work for will never gain the international perception they probably deserve. 

Many of my most creative—dare I say, innovative— friends here in Asia see only two options for finding better workplaces: Move abroad, or start their own businesses. And droves of them are doing just that. This isn’t bad in itself, but it means that larger organizations are missing out on the huge opportunity to benefit from what innovative people have to offer.

Here’s an example:

Imagine a company making sporting goods. They’ve always been known for their ability to make goods fast, but they want to be known for more than that now. They want to be a competitive brand, and be perceived as making the best sporting goods equipment on the market. They’ve even embarked on some expensive marketing campaigns to show the world how innovative and inspiring they can be. 

Now imagine this same company provides their employees with zero access to sports or health related activities. In fact, they unintentionally discourage too much movement. Their offices are dark, damp, and built around one activity only—hammering away at computers all day like monotonous worker drones. Leaders in the company don’t talk about sports or health—outside of their own products of course—and opportunities for employees to share their own passions and ideas simply don’t exist on the companies precious dime.

Can you imagine—even for a moment—that any of the employees of this company could ever genuinely believe in, let alone champion the "brand" they are so unfortunate to work for? What do you think the conversations they’d have with friends and family about work would actually sound like?

Now think about Nike. 

I asked a few brand owners why they feel Nike is such a successful brand. They mentioned the obvious things like amazing products, famous logos, creative marketing campaigns, memorable slogans, and superstar athletes. All of this is true of course, and plays an important role in the success of their brand, but only represent half the story.

The other half doesn't get talked about as much, but it just might be their secret ingredient. That secret ingredient is their company culture. Nike has relentlessly invested in, and built an internal company culture that aligns impeccably with their brand perception. That means Nike ensures that working AT Nike is just as inspiring, innovative and cool as the brand and it's products are in consumers minds. Think about that. Nike wants you to come to work, and have the same feeling as that kid who just got his hands on the newest set of Air Jordan's.

How does Nike create a culture that aligns so perfectly with their brand perception? The answer is surprisingly simple: Communication. 

In 2013, James Elmer Neiderhauser conducted in-depth research specifically on how Nike’s leadership affected brand image internally and externally. 

Neiderhauser states that "Through (CEO) Phil Knight’s communicative leadership which is considered visionary, he indirectly communicates freedom to his employees allowing them the independence to experiment, take calculated risks, and continue to strive for innovation. He trusts them and that is displayed through his communication or rather his lack of communication at times. Since Nike is an incredibly competitive environment Knight welcomes the thought that employees should be able to see what they can do in their own divisions. If they create something great or have an idea that could provide more value to the consumer then useful and meaningful communication can occur at that time.  

One Nike employee said, “Working at Nike is like a factory for fun, like finals night, being in a playground, or coming down the face of a wave”. It’s obvious through the research and investigation that’s been done that Nike has worked to create a culture that breeds winning through hard work and teamwork.”

Nike’s brand is embedded in their company culture, which means their employees like working there as much as they like using the products. This company culture is supported and maintained through constant communication from their leadership, who enable employees to live the brand, and are in a sense branded themselves, which has the effect of creating a success most can only dream of.  

It’s been said that “culture is the one competitive advantage that competitors can’t easily copy and paste”. And that’s been painfully true for many Taiwanese brands.

If Asian companies genuinely want the world to see them as more innovative, international, and relevant to today’s young consumers, then their leaders need to live and breath it. They need to communicate it internally, especially to their younger employees, to help initiate company culture change. Not just once, in a memo about innovation, but continuously through actions and policy that makes it easy for a new dynamic culture to grow.

And what can workers do about it?

Be ambitious. Start doing something. Young employees can seek out and support the companies who are really trying to improve working culture—they can't do it without help. They could also be more active with their own communication to leadership. Be brave. They can be a part of the change they’re seeking by taking risks and communicating ideas—with co-workers, managers, and yes even the boss you're scared of. 

Thankfully, there’s a small but growing number of brand owners who do recognize this and are initiating change, which is injecting new life and energy into local workplace cultures. I hope that in the future we’ll see more brand owners championing better workplace cultures. If they do, young Taiwanese workers will become brand ambassadors for the companies they work for, the international community will take notice, and the global perception of Taiwanese brands will continue to shift in their favor.